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How Many Calories Should I Eat to Lose Weight?

A healthy amount of calories

Fast facts

  1. Gender, age, and activity level affect your recommended daily calorie intake.
  2. To lose weight, you must eat fewer calories than you burn each day.
  3. Be wary of any diet that severely limits what you can or cannot eat or drink.
  4. Avoid diets that dramatically restrict how many calories you consume unless you’re under medical supervision.

Eating too much over a long period of time can have dire consequences for your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of American adults aged 20 or older who are overweight or obese has risen to 71 percent. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for diseases such as:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • sleep apnea
  • gallbladder disease

One of the keys to losing weight is consuming fewer calories than you burn. But how do you know if you’re eating too much or too little?

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Calories

How many calories should you be eating?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends the following daily calorie intake:

Person Calories per day
Women, 19–51 years old 1,800–2,400
Men, 19–51 years old 2,200–3,000
Children and adolescents, 2–18 years old 1,000–3,200
 

The number of USDA-recommended calories varies depending on gender, age, and activity level. People who lead more active lifestyles or those who want to gain weight will need to consume more calories.

Guidance on choosing healthy foods that fulfill your daily calorie needs can be found at the USDA website ChooseMyPlate.gov.

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Weight loss

How to lose weight

If you want to lose weight, the answer is simple, at least in theory. You must eat fewer calories than you use each day.

Once you find your suggested calorie level, subtract about 500 calories, which will allow for about a pound per week weight loss. But be careful; diets that promote very low-calorie intakes, usually under 800 to 1,000 calories per day, can have major negative side effects, such as:

  • constipation
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue

Rapid weight loss can also cause gallstones. The risk is especially high for women.

To help you determine how many calories you are eating, keep track of what you eat each day. Make a list in a notebook or use one of the many free calorie counters available online, such as this one provided by the USDA. Remember to eat a healthy balance of:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • grains
  • protein
  • dairy
  • healthy fats

Limit the amount of added sugar you eat each day.

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Tips

Things to watch out for

While any food eaten in large quantities can cause you to overshoot your calorie target, some may be harder to portion control than others. Foods that are high in fat or sugar, and those that digest quickly, can lead to overconsumption. Foods such as the following can quickly add inches to your waistline if portions are not monitored:

  • soda
  • processed grains like pasta and high sugar cereals
  • cheese
  • fried foods
  • salad dressing

To make sure you aren’t inadvertently eating something high in calories, check the nutrition label on the back of the packaging. Pay attention to the serving size.

Avoid eating foods that contain a lot of “empty calories.” These are typically foods that are high in fat and sugars, but contain little to no other nutrients. Check out these tips from the USDA to learn more about empty calories.

When you eat out at a restaurant, ask for nutrition and calorie information about the food on the menu. And remember, you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. You can always take leftovers home to munch on later.

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Diets

Be smart about dieting

Crash diets are very low-calorie diets aimed at quick weight loss. They are naturally unbalanced and can actually cause long-term health problems. These health concerns include:

  • suppressing your immune system
  • slowing down your metabolism
  • causing dehydration
  • malnutrition
  • permanent heart problems, if done repeatedly

Cleanses can also be dangerous if done for a prolonged time, say longer than three to five days. These are often liquid-based diets. For example, people on the Master Cleanse consume nothing but a mixture of the following elements for several days:

  • water
  • lemon juice
  • maple syrup
  • cayenne pepper

Cleanses are based on the incorrect assumption that the body needs help getting rid of toxins. Not only are these diets ineffective, they also can be dangerous. According to the American Heart Association, a recent study found that yo-yo dieting increased the risk of heart attacks in women by 3.5 times. Weight cycling also increased the risk of dying from coronary artery heart disease by 66 percent.

Be wary of anything that severely limits what you can and cannot eat or drink, or dramatically restricts how many calories you consume. The best way to lose weight is to lose weight slowly, which according to the CDC means no more than one or two pounds per week. Think about how long it took you to gain weight. It will typically take you that the same amount of time, or longer, to lose it.

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Takeaway

The takeaway

The number of daily calories that your body requires depends on a variety of factors, including your genetics, gender, age, weight, body composition, and activity level. The USDA provides a list of recommended daily calories for men, women, and children of all ages and activity levels. If you’re trying to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than you use. If you decide to follow a specific diet, be wary if it severely limits your food choices or the number of calories you can consume.

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